BILT looks to share and disseminate research taking place inside the University around teaching and learning pedagogy and practice. The piece below was written by Kit Leighton-Kelly, Director for Education Excellence.

The changing task of the university

In the nineteenth century the task of the university as a community of scholars was predominantly to educate ‘the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards the truth, and then to grasp it’ (Newman, 1852, The Idea of a University). Only gradually during the second half of the twentieth century was the university seen not just as an educator of thoughtful citizens enabled to reason well, but also as an essential contributor to the wellbeing and development of society through discovery and innovation in the sciences and arts. With that additional dimension the focus expanded from the university’s staff and students (the internal stakeholders), to include also external stakeholders who represented those aspects of society that benefitted from higher education, namely the government, the research councils, industry, commerce, the professions, the arts, and the community.

Increasingly, the benefits of the university’s teaching and research have been understood and appreciated as resources for the preparation of future employees, development of new ideas, and new solutions for problems in production. So nowadays universities have to consider their stakeholder communities, both internal and external, as essential aspects of their investment for the future, together with investment in staff, learning innovations, and systems to maintain and increase levels of excellence in teaching and research. Whilst universities retain autonomy and a hierarchy system, often determined by league tables, the courses taught have expanded to be profession and practitioner related and market sensitive, resulting in broader curricula in all schools and faculties.

Current challenges

Stakeholders’ concerns now influence many aspects of the university’s work and bring new challenges, in particular the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The revised REF introduced the requirement to examine the impact of research, and to show evidence of practice and production benefits locally and globally. The effect has been the development of new and dynamic relationships between research in the academic community and those who deliver goods and services of all kinds, from the sciences to the arts and the professions.

The more recent TEF review may have a similar effect. It required evidence of universities’ response to the challenge to show how teaching prepared students for the demands of employment and society. The effect of that challenge has, and will continue to be, the development of new, closer and dynamic relationships between staff and students, and with external stakeholders, from employers to practitioners and professionals of all kinds. Closer relations in teaching can improve the students’ understanding of the wider aspects of their courses and the alignment of intellectual and practical skills-development with those required in employment.

The additional challenge over the last decade has been the increasing size of the student population and its greater variation in characteristics[1], changing demands for staff and students and funding issues have accentuated this.

Responding to challenges

Overall the university’s challenge is to be keenly aware of the currents of new ideas, to proactively seek and anticipate topics likely to attract funding and where knowledge and understanding are most likely to be advanced. It must be prepared to provide facilities so that opportunities can be taken and results delivered on time and with appropriate publicity, along with teaching of new innovative courses as subjects demand and society requires.

For students we need to go beyond the narrow concept of students as customers and continue to develop our current practice which makes students partners in their learning and in the life of the university. For students therefore the challenge is to make the most of the opportunities, to contribute to the intellectual life of the university, whilst expecting good teaching, good facilities and the chance to make lifelong friends and join a society! Whilst the gym analogy (paying the membership fees does not alone guarantee fitness – a high degree of regular participation is also required) still works, or maybe more aptly does the idea that if you buy a mobile phone, you can put it to one side and wait for it to ring, or you can spend your time searching out new apps and exploring its possibilities!

The curriculum is also developing to respond to the new challenges. Course aims, content, design and assessment are each increasingly influenced by changing disciplines, students and external stakeholders. In addition industry, the professions and research councils provide scholarships, work experience and internships, as well as opportunities and funding for student research experience.

So does the TEF refocus the lens on Teaching - with more support and recognition than at earlier times? Recognition of teaching excellence is marked by annual prizes, research into innovative teaching methods, and support for academic teaching staff continue. More digital methods of recording the student learning journey can now give teachers and students information on progress and learning gain.  Teaching aims are supported by the high level of investment in the learning environment in the form of improved lecturing/study spaces, and library and digital learning facilities.  Student support is being increased to help in preparation for employability, career planning and the development of entrepreneurship, as well as ongoing support.

Local and regional communities see the university as a significant local employer, and are keen to engage with local schools and the community. The university’s challenge is to interact with the local community and help students become part of that society and play a role.

In parallel with the core activities of teaching and research, management of the university must ensure that work towards the realisation of its aims is consistent and communicated productively. That is achieved by interactive and collaborative work between academic, professional services staff and students. Professional services staff work with and support academic staff and students, for example by providing clear guidance around external regulation (visas, consumer protection), supporting systems to track the student journey, assessing progress in responding to these challenges, and collecting, reviewing and presenting data about changes and innovations.

Going forward- Bristol fashion

The complexities of delivering the aims of the University and the target of our stakeholders, the ambitions of our staff and desires of our students requires a multifaceted approach.

So the metaphor of the university as a “super-tanker, solid, steady and impossible to steer” seems appropriate, despite Knight’s comment (2003) that universities are nothing like super-tankers, because after all a tanker knows where it’s going. It is he says, more like a flotilla of boats ranging from a beautiful ocean liner to yachts and a coracle – all with a range of passengers and crew. This metaphor works too if we recognise that the whole fleet comes regularly back to dock, where we work together to make everything ship-shape and Bristol fashion, because we are all seeking the same philosophy - of teaching great students new knowledge, being challenging and innovative, being tolerant and global citizens.  This is no small task and as with any change requires investment (financial, personal), flexibility and goodwill.



[1] https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/09-02-2017/changes-and-trends-student-population

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